The Yukon government announced Oct. 28 that it will make legal opioids available under a prescription program to adults in the territory who use illegal drugs and are at high risk of overdosing.
“I would absolutely hope that it’s going to have an impact on numbers of deaths, or numbers of overdoses, absolutely,” said Cameron Grandy, acting director of mental wellness and substance use services. “There is hope that this would reduce the number of people who are poisoned by street drugs in conjunction with all these other efforts we have to reduce people’s reliance on them.”
Grandy said safe supply programs are already in place in British Columbia and Ontario, two places where the government looked when implementing their own program and training doctors over the past six months.
For now, only doctors will be able to assess individuals and if appropriate, prescribe them hydromorphone, a clinical-grade opioid painkiller.
Although it provides a similar high to other opioids, users can rely on hydromorphone being a “clean” supply, and when used under direction it removes the risk of overdose and uncertainty about what the drug contains.
“We have a poisoning crisis,” said Grandy. “We are able to — if it works for individuals — to provide the relief that they need without that risk of death, which we’ve seen here [in the Yukon.]”
Since the spring of 2016, the Yukon has had 47 opioid-related deaths.
Grandy said that in addition to the safe supply option, there are other resources also available to drug users in the territory. Medical professionals are also able to provide suboxone or methadone, two other medications that can be used to treat opioid addiction.
Those who choose to continue using street drugs can also have their supply tested and used under supervision at the new supervised consumption site.
“You might have different therapies at different times given where you’re at in your life,” said Grandy. “This is just an added therapy that people can take, and is a bit more similar to drugs they might be using on the street, as opposed to ones that help them manage cravings. It might be more meeting the need of that relief or high that they might get.”
The already existing referred care clinic that currently offers opioid treatments will now be able to add hydromorphone to its treatment options. The clinic operates by referral, but drop-in services are also available in the Opioid Treatment Services Program.
“Expanding prescribed safe supply is part of our ongoing work to reduce the lives lost due to overdoses, improve services for people living with substance use issues and reduce stigma associated with drug use,” said Minister of Health and Social Services Tracy-Anne McPhee in a statement.
The supervised consumption site that opened Sept. 29 and the safe supply arrangement were both included in the Confidence and Supply Agreement agreement between the Liberal government and the NDP.
Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Annie Blake said the party is happy with the new option.
“Honestly, I really do feel that having a safe supply more accessible to our vulnerable people in Yukon is going to help save lives. We’ve had a high number of overdoses in the territory. I know people who have overdosed and I see the impact it has on the family and communities. And I feel like this is a good step moving forward,” she said.
Blake said it will be important that the safe supply prescriptions are also available in rural communities, and that First Nation governments are involved in the process of introducing the option in the territory.
“My hope is that more people feel comfortable accessing it and I hope to see more education to Yukoners about this resource so that more people are informed.”
Blood ties says it’s a ‘first step’
Brontë Renwick-Shields, executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions, said the safe supply expansion is a good step forward.
“I think it’s a start,” she said. “This supply is an integral piece in preventing overdose deaths and in addressing the opioid crisis. We are very excited to see it. It’s something we’ve been asking for many years. We look forward to seeing how it does roll out and we’re still waiting on a lot of the technicalities of access.”
Renwick-Shields said as the program is implemented and used, it will be important to gather feedback from opioid users. She also said she’d like to see additional options added to the safe supply programs, including alternative medications and varied methods of consumption.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org